One thing that the recently-released oversized comics “special” (think a softcover version of the classic European “graphic album” format) Kane & Able (Image Comics, 2021) makes perfectly clear from the outset is that this is a project that will, by its very nature, appeal to a very particular readership, namely: those for whom super-hero revisionism hasn’t already run its course. Which, in all honesty, is a group that I’m as surprised as anyone else to include myself among.
Still, one of the works that convinced me that super-hero revisionism isn’t, in fact, as played-out as are super-heroes themselves was Shaky Kane and David Hine’s seminal The Bulletproof Coffin, so the prospect of re-visiting that “universe” in a pair of short stories — especially short stories that presented Kane’s neo-Kirby art at a generous size — was simply too much for this critic to resist. “Fans” and/or aficionados of said “universe” are bound to be pleased by Kane’s stories herein — a tonal and stylistic mix of droll absurdism, metafiction, hinted-at existential angst, and spent machismo with a dash of the conspiratorial thrown in for good measure — which is good news, but anyone else? Well, the art will impress them, and they may get a few laughs out of it, but, apart from that, a confused shoulder-shrug may be the most common reaction.
Which is certainly no “knock,” just a statement of fact. This is insular stuff, but it’s well-done and gorgeously-drawn insular stuff. It lacks the thematic depth of the earlier series from which it’s derived/extrapolated, sure, but that’s to be expected when we’re talking about short-form strips. Rest assured, however: if you’re a long-time Kane reader, you’re going to be over the moon because this is a book that gives you exactly what you want for the price of admission — that being, for the record, $12.99.
As one would rightly surmise from the title, though, this is no “solo act,” and the other half of the book belongs to Krent Able, whose name is popping up in all kinds of interesting places lately, including the new Abrams-published anthology I Feel Love. Thematically, Able’s work can be said to be a fairly close “spiritual relative” of Kane’s, but, stylistically, they’re far enough apart for the distinctions to be as compelling as they are readily noticeable when presented between the same two covers. Where Kane respectfully references the art of Kirby’s Silver Age and beyond, Able draws inspiration from the gritty-but-meticulous detail of the Golden Age, and digitally approximates the drab, “smudgy” colors, rich, black inks — and even the tone of mysterious unwholesomeness that was part and parcel of the comics medium when all of its metaphorical waters were new and untested.
If Kane’s area of expertise lies in raising unsettling questions, then, it’s Able who is in the business of providing disturbing answers. His “Black Fur” strip flat-out revels in the hyper-violent extremes that have been implicit in the super-hero concept since the beginning, and his “Creepzone” strip — which features the little-known Golden Age pairing of Nightmare and his Sleepy, whose rights only recently lapsed into the public domain — explodes every barely-sublimated psychosexual subtext of the hero/sidekick relationship in a manner best described as gruesomely unforgiving. Think a CliffsNotes version of Rick Veitch’s Brat Pack filtered through the no-fucks-to-give ethos of someone reared on Britain’s 2000AD and you’ll have some idea of the sheer visceral power of this gleefully unwholesome number. If you’ve got the stomach, you’re better off just seeing and believing for yourself — although I should be clear that I’m using the term “better off” advisedly.
For our part as readers, then, while Kane and Able are busying themselves with variations on the “oh my God, what the hell is wrong with super-heroes?” theme, our principal concern ends up being how well their explorations of the topic work, both individually and together. After all, this is a package deal both by design and default — and I’d be remiss not to point out that certain elements of that package are ones we’ve seen done to death, not just in their “real” iterations, but their “deconstructed” ones, as well. Sure, the “fake letters page” and “fake old-school comic book ads page” are done better by this tandem than they are by most, and they fit the overall aesthetics of the publication, but they’re nothing special simply because I don’t think such things even can be anymore. I would rather have seen Kane, Able, or both come up with either something entirely new, or, at the very least, a different sort of tongue-firmly-in-cheek “homage,” to serve as their page-filler material. It’s a small complaint, admittedly, but when you’re walking a path this well-tread, it’s often the little details that elevate one revisionist project over another.
They’ve “nailed it” in more or less every other respect, though, so if you’re one of those readers — again, like myself — whose interests are still tuned in to this wavelength, you’ll find few better examples of it done at a level this high. I’d be lying if I said I expect Kane & Able to be on many “best-of” lists at the end of the year, but that’s not what really matters here. For people whose primary interest lies in grappling with the concept of the super-hero on a fundamental, existential level — people who think it’s important to analyze what these sorts of characters say about our society as well as how they go about saying it? This may just be the best comic of the last several years.
And hey, if you’re one of those folks who’s needed their Bulletproof Coffin itch scratched for a good few years now? You’ll be as happy as a lonely old perv when he squeezes into his super-hero tights.
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